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"These kids become commodities," says Harry Edwards, a sociology professor emeritus at UC Berkeley and a well-known commentator on the cultural role of sports. "They literally are being developed into marketable commodities that somebody is willing to pay money to have access to by the time they're 15, 16, 17 years old."
For elite travel teams like the Soldiers, though, the benefits of Nike's EYBL are too great to pass up. Exposure is the point of travel-team basketball. Coaches and players say that the league provides the best platform for scholarship opportunities. Every major college coach attends at least one EYBL session. National publications cover the league. The media sign-in sheets at the events read like a roll call of college-sports recruiting websites.
To those coaches and players, Nike is a necessary partner in today's hyper-competitive world of travel-team basketball. It is a world Nike and other shoe companies shaped in the first place. Where the path to professional stardom starts at a younger and younger age. And it is a world in which the Oakland Soldiers have thrived.
The Soldiers are up four points with less than a minute left in the game when Johnson steals the ball, then glides down the court for a tomahawk jam, sealing the win. Because Gordon is out with a fractured left foot and Bird is out with tendinitis in his knee, Johnson has carried the offensive load, scoring 23 of the team's 68 points and grabbing 12 rebounds.
Johnson, 6-foot-5 with a smooth jumper, is not from the Bay Area. He's from Fullerton and goes to Mater Dei High School, the famous Catholic sports factory. He'll be a junior in the fall and the buzz around him is growing. After the teams shake hands, Johnson whips off his jersey and finds a pack of reporters waiting to talk to him.
This is his second year on the Soldiers. He'd played for California Supreme, another EYBL program, but jumped to the Soldiers because the Supreme wanted him to play on their 16-and-under team, according to his mom, Karen Taylor. She promptly called Soldiers' Executive Director Mark Olivier. He just as promptly offered her son a spot on their 17-and-under team. So Johnson flies up for practices and games, spending his nights in hotels or crashing at a teammate's house. Nike covers all the Soldiers' traveling expenses, which add to up around $60,000 a year.
One reporter asks him why he thinks Nike is being so generous. "Nike tries to monopolize the game," says Johnson, shrugging his shoulders, hands on his hips. "And the NBA players — LeBron, Kobe, Durant — they got everybody. [Nike] got the best players. They wanna have the best league, too. I mean, this is just them doing their thing, being Nike, and just being the best."
A quick walk around the Dream Courts proves his point. Four of ESPN's five highest-rated class of 2013 prospects are in the building. So are the three highest-rated class of 2014 prospects. On Court Four, for instance, playing for the Chicago travel team Mac Irvin Fire, there's Jabari Parker, who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated a week before, beside the headline "The Best High School Basketball Player Since LeBron James Is ... Jabari Parker."
When Nike kicked off the EYBL in spring 2010, one ESPN writer said that the company had "revolutionized" travel team basketball. While shoe-company-run camps and tournaments have served for years as the premier platform for top high-school basketball talent, elite travel teams still had to fill out the rest of their summer schedules with weekend tournaments of varying competition levels, organization, and exposure. The teams would waste time against weak teams in the early rounds. They'd play four games a day, wearing out legs and increasing injury risk. They'd compete in tournaments with no media coverage and few scouts.
The EYBL solves those problems: Every game is competitive, teams play no more than two a day, and they receive extensive media coverage. For elite high school basketball players, it is simply a better product. So the talent has converged, and a majority of the top players and teams now compete in one league for an entire season. The EYBL diverges from the classic model of amateur youth sports, where every kid can participate and learn about hard work, teamwork, and sportsmanship. The EYBL, simply, is a market for college coaches seeking elite athletes.
"We can go out and watch the best players against the best players," says Randy Bennett, head basketball coach at Saint Mary's College. "You get to see them against better competition. It's convenient."
It costs Nike more than $2 million just to cover teams' travel fare for the season. That doesn't include all the gear, venue staffers, on-site trainers, insurance, and more. But it's a slim price for a corporation that generated more than $21 billion in revenue last year. Nike is the most successful sports apparel company in the world. One reason is its innovative marketing. This is the same company that turned Michael Jordan into a commercial icon, the company whose products are so desired that young people wait in lines outside stores for hours through chilly dawns, sometimes rioting, sometimes even killing each other. All because Nike turned its swoosh into a symbol — of winning, of success, of cool — and kept it that way.